Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

How Do You Know If You’re Having a Nervous Breakdown?

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If you’re unable to function in daily life because you’re so overwhelmed by stress, fury, fear, or despair, you may be having what clinicians once referred to as a nervous breakdown. While the term is no longer used by mental health professionals today, it still describes a variety of legitimate mental health disorders.

Today, we use the term “nervous breakdown” more colloquially to refer to an emotional or mental health crisis in which people feel out of control or frightened by the intensity of their feelings. A nervous breakdown (also referred to as a mental breakdown) can sometimes indicate underlying mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Key Takeaways

  • A nervous breakdown is a massive mental or emotional breakdown that renders people unable to function in daily life.
  • A nervous breakdown (also called a mental breakdown) isn’t a mental health diagnosis, but it does cause sufferers to feel overwhelming stress, as if they’re losing control.
  • Stress life events and/or underlying mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety or PTSD, can precipitate a nervous breakdown.
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and finding ways to reduce stress can help prevent a nervous breakdown.

Is a Meltdown the Same as a Nervous Breakdown?

People sometimes use the terms “meltdown” and “nervous breakdown” interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences. Meltdowns are more often short in duration, a response to a stimulus. Emotional in nature, meltdowns happen when people can’t cope with their immediate circumstances. They may become so overwhelmed that they weep, shout, or scream uncontrollably. Others may explode angrily—even kicking, hitting, or punching others. Some panic and retreat into themselves. Meltdowns occur when people feel overloaded. When the stimulus causing the meltdown goes away, people feel drained but return to balance rather quickly.

A nervous breakdown, on the other hand, is a mental breakdown. It’s more often the result of long-term psychological stress. People experiencing a nervous breakdown may dissociate or have suicidal thoughts. Unable to perform the activities of everyday life, they usually require treatment from a mental health professional. A nervous breakdown may last for days, weeks, months—even years. Because it’s usually longer in duration, it takes more time and energy to recover from, as well.


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What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and a Nervous Breakdown?

The main difference between a panic attack and a nervous breakdown is that a panic attack is a very specific type of stress reaction. A nervous breakdown results from a sudden or prolonged period of stress, often rooted in underlying mental health conditions. A panic attack, in essence, is a type of nervous breakdown. Panic attacks are episodes of overwhelming anxiety and fear that often arise out of the blue, sometimes without explanation.

Panic attacks can be more intense than nervous breakdowns, but are shorter, typically ending within 20 to 30 minutes. In that sense, unlike nervous breakdowns, they typically do not prevent people from functioning in daily life. People experiencing a panic attack may feel they’re about to die even though they’re in no danger.

Symptoms might include chest pain and discomfort, increased heart rate, hyperventilation or shortness of breath, trembling, shaking, sweating, dizziness, numbness, nausea, hot or cold flashes, or gastric disturbances. However, nervous breakdowns, on the other hand, are more often associated with the signs and symptoms of depression such as social withdrawal, sobbing, and self-harming thoughts.

The exact cause of panic attacks is not known. Some panic attacks are unexpected while others can be repetitive in nature. Some people might only experience panic attacks in certain circumstances, like being in tight spaces (elevators, tunnels, caves) or in the presence of certain animals such as snakes or spiders. Genetics, trauma, major life events (a new baby, a new job, a move), medical conditions, and substance abuse can also trigger panic attacks.

Try These Easy Practices to Build Stress Resilience

If you’re experiencing meltdowns and panic attacks, the simple yet powerful practices in our Resilience Toolkit can help. Download your toolkit to learn:

  • The Square Breathing practice to lower stress
  • Supportive touch to build self-compassion
  • How to start a Gratitude Jar, write a Gratitude Letter, and create a Gratitude Rock
  • Ways to identify and activate your character strengths

What Does a Nervous Breakdown Feel Like?

A nervous breakdown isn’t a mental health diagnosis and doesn’t indicate a specific mental illness. But it does cause intense mental distress. Some describe it as being at the end of their rope. And, lacking the resources to combat their overwhelming stress, they feel as if they’re falling apart. They may feel anxiety-stricken, withdrawn, incapacitated, debilitated, and unable to concentrate or make decisions.

Am I Having a Nervous Breakdown? Symptoms and Signs

Different signs and symptoms can indicate a person may be experiencing a nervous breakdown. Some signs are mental and emotional. However, physical symptoms are common as well. Signs and symptoms vary between individuals and depend upon the underlying cause of the breakdown.

Emotional, mental, and behavioral signs of a nervous breakdown can include:

  • Unmanageable anxiety
  • Isolating—withdrawing from social engagements; missing appointments; calling in sick to work for days or weeks in a row; stopping daily activities
  • Extreme moodiness—emotional outbursts, uncontrollable rage or sobbing; feeling deeply depressed and burned out
  • Feeling overwhelmed—unable to focus or make sound decisions
  • Paranoia and delusions—believing others are watching or stalking you; inability to distinguish between what’s real and imaginary
  • Hallucinating—experiencing flashbacks from a stressful or traumatic event, possibly a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Dissociation—feeling detached from yourself, your emotions, and your environment
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Physical symptoms of a nervous or mental breakdown can include:

  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Difficulty keeping up with personal hygiene
  • Sleep deprivation and related exhaustion
  • Muscle pain—sore and stiff muscles, especially from muscle tension in the back, neck, or jaw
  • Racing heart, rise in heart rate or blood pressure, tightness in the chest
  • Frequent illnesses or infections due to a weakened immune system
  • Bowel problems—stomach cramps and irregular bowel movements
  • Increased sweating—clammy hands, hot or cold flushes
  • Shaking, dizziness, or nausea

Causes of a Nervous or Mental Breakdown

Almost anything can trigger a breakdown because everyone has a different stress threshold. People with poor coping skills or little social support often have a lower tolerance for stress. Hence, they may be more challenged during periods of adversity. But even those with higher resilience may become so overwhelmed by stress that they can’t perform normal daily functions.

Some circumstances that precipitate a nervous breakdown include long-term insomnia, chronic medical conditions (or the worsening of one), burnout at school or work, unemployment, or financial problems. In addition, family turmoil or abuse, divorce (or the ending of a significant intimate relationship), or a sudden tragedy such as the unexpected death of a loved one can lead to a breakdown.

An underlying mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or PTSD can also contribute to a mental breakdown. Hence, a personal or family history of anxiety disorders or depression may be a factor. Over time, the gradual build-up of intense stress arising from one or more of these conditions has the potential to lead to a nervous breakdown.

Know the Facts

In a study of 2,809 young adults (ages 18–25), 48% reported mental health symptoms such as depression or anxiety.

What to Do If You Think You’re Having a Stress Breakdown

First, try to calm yourself in the moment. If a person or environment is triggering the stress or making it worse, remove yourself for as long as possible. Give your body and mind a “time out.” Try relaxation techniques such as lying on the grass and watching the clouds. Take a short walk in your favorite peaceful setting. Try a breathing exercise like this one:

  1. With your mouth closed, breathe in through your nose until your belly is full.
  2. Hold your breath for three seconds.
  3. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips (like you’re whistling).
  4. Repeat this a few times.

If relaxation techniques don’t help or if you are experiencing repeated stress reactions, reach out to your primary care doctor or a mental health professional as soon as possible. They can help diagnose possible underlying mental health conditions contributing to your mental meltdowns. If you’re alone and experiencing a severe breakdown, seek immediate help at a local ER or call 988 for support.

How to Protect Against Mental Meltdowns

Preventing a mental meltdown often involves lifestyle changes. While the suggestions below are not foolproof, they could help prevent a meltdown from occurring by reducing overall stress and burnout.

  • Limit or avoid alcohol, drugs, and excessive amounts of caffeine.
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day at least five days per week. (Walking is great exercise).
  • Practice good sleep habits. Sleep in a quiet, dark bedroom free of electronic devices. Maintain a consistent sleeping and waking pattern.
  • Relax with breathing exercises, journaling, visualization techniques, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, or progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing muscle groups).
  • Take mini breaks throughout the work day. Get up and stretch or gaze out the window for five minutes every hour.
  • Seek out counseling. Talk with a mental health professional about your feelings and learn ways to manage them. Look for support groups.
  • Make time to socialize with people you love and engage in activities you enjoy.
  • Take quiet time for yourself when you need it.

Treatment for the Underlying Causes of a Mental Health Crisis

At Newport Institute, our integrated and evidence-based approach to treating mental health crises addresses the underlying causes of mental breakdowns. In our residential and outpatient treatment programs, we provide young adults with comprehensive and individualized treatment plans that include clinical and experiential modalities. Through individual, group, and family therapy, we help young adults uncover and heal the source of mental health conditions and related disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, and eating disorders.

Contact us today to schedule a mental health assessment and learn more about our nationwide young adult treatment locations. We look forward to connecting with you and supporting you or your loved one on the path toward healing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I know if I’m having a nervous breakdown?
  • How long does a nervous breakdown usually last?
  • What triggers a nervous breakdown?
  • What is the difference between a nervous breakdown and a mental breakdown?
  • How do you treat a nervous breakdown?

J Adolesc. Health. 2022 June; 70(6): 985–988.

Mental Health / March 21, 2023